Thursday, July 03, 2008

Handel's Ariodante

San Francisco Opera
Tue Jul 1 2008 7:30 pm

Ariodante: Susan Graham
Ginevra: Ruth Ann Swenson
Polinesso: Sonia Prina
Dalinda: Veronica Cangemi
Lurcanio: Richard Croft
Odoardo: Andrew Bidlack
The King of Scotland: Eric Owens
Polinesso's Squire: Anders Froehlich

Conductor: Patrick Summers
Director: John Copley

If opera is supposed to be about singing, then this was a great performance all around. Ruth Ann Swenson got us off to a strong start with her bold sound & high-hitting cadenza. The dramatic situations are pat at best, but after each shuffle of the personnel on stage, I was looking forward to hearing the next spectacular bout of singing. Sonia Prina could cram so many notes into a phrase that it was both gasp-inducing & ludicrous. Richard Croft's sweet & lyric singing was an unexpected pleasure. The centerpiece of the evening was Susan Graham's extended Act II aria of despair. On stage alone, she completely commanded us with her heart-breaking acting & a sound that was rooted deep in her core. She even sang from a twisted position on the floor!

Patrick Summers led a reduced orchestra that included a baroque lute & 2 harpsichords but was otherwise modern. It was a good compromise between historical accuracy & modern performance practice. He accompanied the recitatives himself on one of the harpsichords. He took generally fast tempos. In numbers that seemed headed towards a forte at the conclusion, he sometimes suddenly pulled back & landed lightly on the last chord. Fleet instead of heavy.

The period costumes were colorful, opulent & fun to look at. The set was a shiny black floor that unfortunately squeaked & 4 walls that reconfigured themselves between scenes. The staging was of the kind that makes opera so easy to make fun of. There are 2 prancing ballet numbers for no apparent reason. During the instrumental passages of the arias, characters stalk around the stage, as if looking for an exit. Then as soon as a character finishes singing, he or she immediately walks out on us, leaving us to applaud an empty stage or a bunch of people who haven't done anything for the past several minutes but stand around. One character did nothing but follow the bad guy Polinesso around. Another character did nothing but follow the King around, but at least he got a few lines of recitative.

There was at least one nice directorial moment, though, when Polinesso stroked the King's throne as he walked by it, revealing his political aspirations. It got an appropriate laugh of recognition. But the main attraction of this production is the singing. There's only one performance left, & I'm considering standing room this Sunday for another chance to take in those great voices.

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